I grew up looking at the remnants of a tornado.
It was an area of acreages and farmland that today is inner city. On the land next to our acreage, the remains of a roof rotted slowly back to the ground. The tornado had stripped it off a house and dumped it there. A half mile or so past that, a tilted grain silo sat where the same tornado had deposited it. It was about a mile from its original moorings.
That particular tornado happened before I was born, before my parents were married. They were both involved in it. My Daddy told me how he watched it take the house where my aunt and uncle lived. He described how the tornado seemed to lift the house off the ground, and then it exploded. That storm jerked trees out of the ground and their roots pulled up with them in long tendrils that left trenches in the earth. It took up grass off the ground.
Daddy said that the canned goods lining the shelves in the neighbor’s cellar where he took shelter vibrated as the storm passed over.
Thirty-five people died in that tornado. They were people my family knew. My mother went to school with a girl who lost her entire family and was terribly injured herself. This lone survivor of her whole clan wore a headscarf after that because she had been scalped by the winds.
Every time I read another comment about how Oklahoma doesn’t have basements for people to shelter in from these storms, I remember the line of graves in the cemetery not far from where my grandparents and my father are buried. This family went to the basement of their house. They were killed — every single one of them — when the tornado dropped the house down into the basement on top them.
In storms like this, you have to be underground, and the top of your underground shelter cannot be the floor of the house above.
Daddy and my Uncle Jimmy dug us a storm cellar when I was a little girl. After what they’d seen, they were adamant about what it took to come through a bad tornado. It had a concrete, steel-reinforced top that you could park a train engine on without any problem.
When my parents went through the killer tornado that killed so many of their friends, there were no tornado warnings. My father watched this particular tornado form. There were two funnels at first, then they got together. The rest was rock and roll. The fact that he saw it happen gave him and his time to take shelter. He even had time to do a stupid young man’s thing and try to drive his car to the shelter. Why he thought it would save that car to move it, no one, including him, ever knew. But it seemed like the thing to do at the time.
He and his brother left the storm cellar, with my grandmother yelling at them to come back and not be such idiots, ran back to their house, got into that car and raced, teen-aged style, for the shelter. All this while a killer tornado was roaring right at them.
I can only imagine what my grandmother must have felt, watching these two young bucks of hers as they risked their lives for no reason at all. The tornado didn’t hit them. But they got enough of a by-blow that it lifted the front end of the car off the ground and shoved it into a ditch. They got out and made the rest of the trek on foot.
The only reason I managed to get born is because that day just wasn’t my Daddy’s day to die.
It was the day to die for thirty-five other people. As I said, there was no warning. The girl who lost her family and ended up wearing wigs and head scarves for life said that the first they knew of it was when they heard gravel from the road, hitting the side of their house. That was the tornado, throwing the gravel as it approached.
Later, when I was a little girl, we had sort of storm warnings. By that I mean the television would make a loud beeping sound and the weatherman would come on to tell us there was a “line of thunder storms” coming at us. He used what looked like a white magic marker on a black board to make little squiggly marks signifying the line of thunderstorms and then he’d draw arrows to show which way they were moving. Nobody, including him, knew if this particular line of thunderstorms would make hail, high winds, deadly tornadoes, or just pass on by without even dropping rain.
We would troop down into the cellar Daddy had built, us and all the neighbors. Before he built it, I remember going to other people’s cellars in the neighborhood. Going to the cellar back then was something of a community event. We took lanterns and the kids took toys. The women and children sat around underground, passing the time and waiting for the storms to get there while the men stood aboveground, gazing thoughtfully at the skies.
You may not know this, but real men always stand guard, even if it’s against a tornado.
After a while the storm would hit and we’d all sit there together, listening to hail as it pounded the cellar door. Many times, it go too loud to talk.
People always take other people in during storms. I remember once we were traveling across the Texas panhandle when the clouds got gnarly looking. We stopped at a farmhouse. There was no one in the house, so we went around back to the cellar and knocked on the cellar door. They opened it, saw us, and invited us in. We rode out the storm with these good people. After it was over, the men shook hands, the women said their glad-to-meet-yous and we we got back on the road for home.
Warning time is everything when it comes to tornadoes. Without warning, hundreds of people would have died last week. Without warning, many hundreds of people would have died in the May 3, 1999 tornado.
Those early tornado warning pioneers with their magic markers and vague information saved lives. Today’s weather forecasters with their helicopters and doppler radar save many more lives.
That is not to say that we can’t do more. We must do more.
I have been haunted all week by the fact that I am a state legislator and children died in a public school for lack of adequate shelter. I can not explain why we haven’t built shelters in the schools. There is no reason.
The May 3 tornado hit a school and leveled it. We all shook our heads and said that it was lucky that the tornado hit after school hours. But I don’t guess any of us thought what we should do to prevent a tragedy if one of these things came in a few hours earlier in the day.
I know I didn’t.
I wasn’t in the legislature at the time, and when you’re not in the legislature you think differently. But I am now. I have been for years. Why didn’t I at least try?
The reason, stupid as it sounds, is because I didn’t think of it. I think about tornados in much the same way I think about my own impending death, which is to say, not much. They just are. Tornados kill. Everybody knows it. Even with today’s technology, they are unpredictable in the extreme. Someone I know lost their house last week when the tornado they were watching move away from them suddenly turned and headed toward them. They had time to get out ahead of it, but it was close.
Tornadoes are unpredictable. Even the smallest ones will kill you with a direct hit. I saw a tornado once that looked like a water spout. It knocked over one great big sign in a grocery store parking lot about a block from my house. Not much damage. It didn’t even tear up the sign. But if that sign had been a person, things might not have been so simple.
That was a teeny tornado. It was so small and short-lived that only those of us who were looking straight at it ever knew it existed.
There is no tornado that can’t kill you. Some tornados take out a single house. A neighbor of my Daddy’s best friend lost their house to a tornado. The house sat on a hill. Their daughter had been out riding her horse. She saw it coming and got off the horse, raced indoors and climbed up the chimney. When the tornado passed, the chimney was all that was left of her house. Until like most other tornados, this one didn’t leave a pile of rubble. It cleared the house off that hill and left a chimney, standing tall and alone against the sky.
But the big bad ones that come down and stay down and cover territory are killers that can take out a whole community. They have the potential to kill everyone and everything that is above ground for miles, sometimes for hundreds of miles.
We didn’t do what we should have done about building shelters in the schools. That’s the plain truth of it.
I talked to the House Speaker about this late one night last week. He sort of sees the same thing. He’s still got his Oklahoma blinders on, though. We don’t ever think it’s going to happen again. Until it does. Then we don’t think it will happen again … again.
But this is Oklahoma. We get hit by tornados. These storms go in cycles. You can have years, decades, without a really bad one. Then, the killers start dropping out of those clouds like popcorn popping, one after the other, bang, bang, bang. We’re some place in a cycle of bad tornados right now. We may be half way through it. We may even be at the end of it.
But one thing we can know for sure: It will happen again.
I have to live with the fact that those children who died in that school last week are dead at least partly because we — meaning me — didn’t do what we should have done. There is no choice. I failed in my job so far as this is concerned, and the burden of that is something I have to live with.
But I will not live with failing to do what I should do from here on out. I know the people I work with. There are a lot of them who will have trouble with the state forcing local school districts to do anything, even something as ubiquitous and important as building tornado shelters. There are some of them who will decide this is a nanny state thing. So be it. I’m not responsible for them. They will have to stand before God and explain themselves one day just like I will.
I don’t intend to explain that I didn’t try to stop at least this part of the tragedy we are enduring from happening again. I don’t care who gets the credit, or anything like that. All I care about is that I do my best to save lives.
All any of us ever has to do is our part, and that is my part.
Huffington Post has some interesting before and after photos of the May 20 tornado damage here.